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Volunteering to starve for the sake of scientific research sounds like a downright crazy thing to do. But that’s exactly what 36 men did over 70 years ago for the sake of the now infamous Minnesota Starvation Experiment. And, it’s lucky they did, because despite the hairy ethics of an experiment which essentially tortured its participants, the watershed study colored what we now know about human behavior in the midst of extreme food deprivation.
The experiment itself, overseen by Ancel Keys, took place on the campus of the University of Minnesota. A 13 month study spanning the year of 1944, it occurred simultaneously with WWII–a massacre which ravaged the bodies of millions.
The goal was simple: observe the effects of semi-starvation and subsequently develop potent re-feeding techniques which could be utilized to save lives overseas.
Those who volunteered were conscientious objectors, who wanted to lend their help to moral war efforts but opposed the act of war in and of itself. Though the experience promised to be grueling, these brave souls offered up their bodies as vessels for an experimental and potentially dangerous quest for knowledge.
Seventy years later, Marshal Sutton, a participant in the study, told BBC his motivations behind such a sacrifice. He said, “I wanted to identify with the suffering in the world at that time…I wanted to do something for society. I wanted to put myself in a little danger.”
In the years that followed, the Holocaust saw intentional mass starvation of countless victims in concentration camps; these individuals had no stability, no cause for hope, and ostensibly no end in sight to the suffering save their own demise.
The 36 men in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, conversely, had all of the amenities that those in the camps did not. They were under medical supervision, their food consumption strictly monitored yet deliberately kept at a level which ensured survival (during the semi-starvation period, they were allowed approximately 1,600 calories a day–with rations varying based on unique metabolic factors). They were also required to walk 22 miles a week.
Furthermore, the time confines of the study were well-defined; they would be kept at minimal levels of food consumption for exactly six months. There was always an end in sight.
What transpired in the bodies and psyches of these young men taught researchers about the all-encompassing consequences of food deprivation. It infiltrated every aspect of subjects’ lives: the physical, mental, and social. Not only did the young men become physically ill, they also became irritable, their personalities changed, and they lost all interest in budding romances or regular socialization.
Subjects developed obsessive behaviors surrounding food. They incessantly planned and dreamt about their upcoming meals, made unusual and sometimes unappetizing food combinations, dramatically increased their use of salt and spices, supplemented extreme consumption of coffee, tea, gum, and cigarettes—so much so that many of these substances had to be limited.
When asked to keep journals of their experience, one subject wrote, “They would coddle [the food] like a baby or handle it and look it over as they would some gold. They played with it like kids making mud pies.”
In the years since the experiment, it has become clear that these drastic observed behaviors of the semi-starved present themselves in individuals with eating disorders as well.
Those with a basic understanding of disordered eating know that it isn’t unusual for those suffering from conditions like anorexia nervosa and bulimia to develop extraordinarily complex and convoluted rituals surrounding the consumption of food.
An individual who is willfully depriving themselves of food (and perhaps wishes to deceive those who could find this worrisome) might make over-exaggerated gestures surrounding their plates, or make arbitrary personal rules about how, when, and where food can be consumed.
Without the poignant observation of identical behaviors in the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, one might make the assumption that the elaborate theater which accompanies disordered eating is purely an outwardly motivated distraction tactic. However, the similar reconstitution, control, and mental trickery displayed by the MSE participants suggests that these behaviors might not simply be facets of eating disorders, but rather are symptomatic manifestations of semi-starvation.
These salient findings weren’t without collateral damage. Once re-feeding began, it became clear that the strange habits participants had developed did not disappear simply because food became readily available and permitted.
Furthermore, years after the study ended, the memory of persistent hunger, made it difficult for subjects to differentiate between a normal appetite and the gnawing want which had clawed at their minds and stomachs for months.
The study resulted in a comprehensive guide for aid entitled “Men and Hunger: a Psychological Manual for Relief Workers,” and the findings still inform nutrition and diet protocol to this day.
The MSE wasn’t the first time that human experiments toed the line of ethics, and it wouldn’t be the last. Ethics codes developed in subsequent years would likely deem this kind of study unfit today.
Experiments which use human beings as veritable guinea pigs (especially when their mental and/or physical health is jeopardized), are now frowned upon by the scientific community. However, there is an interesting paradox; we wouldn’t know what we now do about human nature without experiments like the MSE.
Does the voluntary sacrifice of wellbeing for a few individuals become justified by its scientific results? Do the ends justify the means, and is the greater good ultimately the most important thing?
Perhaps the best source for answering this question is the participants themselves. Though the process was incredibly difficult, those who volunteered were proud to have helped and leant a hand.
“I am proud of what I did,” said test subject Henry Scholberg in a study publication. “My protruding ribs were my battle scars. It was something great, something incomprehensible.”